Where is Jesus now? It is the sort of question we can imagine the seven year old asking their Sunday School teacher. And in one sense it is quite an easy question to answer. The New Testament is very clear that Jesus is now in heaven at God’s right hand (e.g. Romans 8:34). So, in Acts 1:9 we read about the disciples watching as Jesus ascends into heaven and in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 Paul tells us that we are waiting for Jesus to come from heaven. In his sermon in Acts 3, Peter tells the crowd that Jesus must remain in heaven until God restores all things. So, the New Testament is crystal clear: Jesus is in heaven.
But that is not all the New Testament says. Paul, who is very clear that Jesus is in heaven, can also say in Galatians 2:20 that ‘Christ lives in me’. Similarly, in Romans 8:10, he tells the Romans that ‘Christ is in you’. Likewise, before he ascends into heaven, Jesus promises his disciples ‘behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matt 28:20). So, the New Testament is crystal clear: Jesus is in us and with us.
Jesus is in heaven but he is also in us; he is at God’s right hand but he is also in our hearts. How do we resolve this seeming tension? One way that I think is helpful is to think in terms of Jesus being both absent and present. Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:3 thinks of his own location in terms of ‘absent in body’ but ‘present in spirit’. I think that can help us think about Jesus.
Jesus is absent in body
The reason that Jesus is not here is that as well as being God, Jesus remains a human being. He is a human being with a body (albeit an exalted one) which means that like any other human being, his location is fixed. He is not everywhere. This comes out in chapter 3 of Philippians. Here Paul reminds his readers that their ‘citizenship is in heaven, and from it [their] await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform [their] lowly body to be like his glorious body’ (vv.20-21). Our citizenship is in heaven and so our gaze is directed to heaven because we are waiting for Jesus to come, and he will come from there with a ‘glorious body’. Jesus remains a human being and he retains a human body. It is this body that means he is absent from us.
In terms of the specific location of Jesus, I don’t think we can say any more than that he has a body and that he is in heaven. There is really no point in trying to pin-point where in the universe Jesus is. Paul simply says that when Jesus ascends into heaven he is exalted ‘far above all the heavens’ (Eph 4:10). The doctrine of the absence of Christ stresses the fact that he is not with us because he has a body and is somewhere else - beyond the realms of this universe.
Jesus is present through the Spirit
What exactly do we mean when we say that Jesus is present in or through the Spirit? It is one of the phrases that we can easily rattle off without pausing to think exactly what it means. Romans 8 helps us to think more carefully. Paul starts the chapter by spelling out the differences between walking in the Spirit and walking in the flesh – one leads to life and the other death. In Romans 8:9-11 Paul reminds his readers that the Christian is someone who is in the Spirit and in whom the Spirit dwells. Paul describes the Spirit as the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ (v.9). Then in verse 10, it is not just the Spirit who is in the believer but Christ himself. But by verse 11, Paul has reverted to saying that it is the Spirit who dwells in them. So, the Spirit can be described as the Spirit, the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. And as well as the Spirit living in us, Christ himself is in us. How do we understand all this variation?
Well the answer is the doctrine of the Trinity! Very briefly, the doctrine of the Trinity tells us that the Bible teaches that there is one God who is three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But God in not a group of three people like the three leaves of a clover. It is not as if you could point at part of God and say, ‘there is the Father’, or another part of God and say, ‘there is the Son’. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct but they are not separate individuals like three human beings. No, their relationship is of a totally different order. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three individuals but are three divine persons who dwell in one another. That means that the Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Spirit and the Spirit is in the Father (see John 14:11). So, the Trinity is not one God in three parts. It is one God and that one God is three persons who are in the closest possible relationship with one another. That means that when you have the Spirit you have the Father and the Son. The Spirit is not the Father and he is not the Son, but the nature of their relationship is that if you have the Spirit you have the Father and the Son too.
That is exactly what we see in Romans 8. Paul switches between the Spirit and Christ – because if the Spirit is dwelling in you, then Christ is in you. We get a very similar thought in John 14. Here as Jesus teaches the disciples before his departure he promises them that he will send the Spirit to them (14:16-17). But he immediately interprets this to mean that he himself will come to him (14:18). The Spirit coming means that in some sense Jesus too comes to them.
In other words, the Spirit is not just a representative or a substitute for the absent Jesus. He is not simply an ambassador. When an American ambassador is present, we say that he comes representing the President, but we don’t think of the President himself actually being present. But it is different with God. Where the Spirit is, there is the Father and the Son. The Spirit does not just represent Jesus. Rather, because of the nature of their relationship, he actually brings Jesus with him. It is very difficult for us to understand this because it is not the way human relationships work. In a sense, however, it should not surprise us that God is beyond our understanding! Because of the work of the Spirit, Jesus really is with us. If you are a Christian, he really is in you.
So because Jesus remains a human being with a body, he is not everywhere – he is located in heaven – absent from us. But because of his relationship with the Holy Spirit – he is present with us and in us.
Dr Peter Orr lectures in New Testament at Moore Theological College.
Feature photo: Steve Snodgrass